Showing posts with label The Circus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Circus. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fire destroys the set of The Circus

The studio production report for September 28th, 1926 read: "Were shooting scenes in entrance to dressing rooms on enclosed stage. Fire broke out and whole interior of stage was burned--burning sets, props, etc."

It was Chaplin himself who first noticed the blaze while walking from the main circus set to the dressing room set where flames were already licking the canvas walls of the tent. "Chaplin, shouting the alarm, converted his entrance into a hasty exit. Miss [Merna] Kennedy and other members of the company also fled from the stage as the flames bit into the flimsy canvas and rolled toward the upper beams. As they ran, the skylight cracked from the heat and sent showers of glass falling around them."1

While firemen battled the blaze, cameraman Rollie Totheroh shot 250 feet of film which reportedly shows Chaplin "dashing about in his bathrobe among firemen, flames, and drenching water."2 Evidently this film is no longer in existence, however  a stills photographer captured shots of a distraught-looking Chaplin, still in costume, gazing at the burned-out circus set (below). Totheroh's film of the catastrophe was shown in theaters as pre-publicity for The Circus.

Film stills exist of Chaplin wearing the same checkered robe he is wearing above, in a dressing room scene with Henry Bergman that was never used in the film.

The fire caused $40,000 worth of damage and may have been started by a short circuit in the Klieg lights.3 The studio was put back into partial operation while the circus set was rebuilt. In the meantime, Chaplin came up with scenes that could be filmed elsewhere, including a scene with Merna strolling down Sunset Blvd en route to a cafe, as well as a scene inside the cafe. But neither were used in the final film.

The crew of The Circus pose next to a "No Smoking On Stage" sign following the fire.

More photos here.

1Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1926. Some reports state that the glass skylights were broken by the firemen in an attempt to contain the fire.
2Motion Picture, January 1927
3L.A. Times 9/29/26; Film Daily 9/30/26

Friday, March 11, 2016

Charlie is attacked by monkeys on the tightrope (The Circus,1928)

In 1929, Chaplin told Czech journalist Egon Erwin Kisch some of the difficulties, physically and otherwise, he had filming this scene:
He also tells stories about his own films. The monkeys in Circus scratched him badly and for six weeks he had to be in a doctor's care. Even now he has two clearly visible wounds. 
Then there was the bellowing of the monkey's owners. The monkeys, you see, belonged to four different extras, each of whom regarded his own as the main attraction. "Turn the camera downward," one of them yells to the cameraman. "Can't you see that Johnny's on the ground?" Another: "Now, now! Mungo's face is turning this way." Charlie plays the scene: four monkeys, four tamers, himself, and the cameraman. (Egon Erwin Kisch, The Raging Reporter: A Bio-Anthology, Purdue, 1997)
Chaplin with the monkeys and their trainers.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Lion & the Tramp

This post first appeared one year ago on Flicker Alley's The Archives blog.

Chaplin & Numa in The Circus

One of the more memorable scenes in Chaplin's 1928 classic The Circus occurs when the Tramp, chased by a mule, accidently locks himself in a lion's cage. Chaplin's co-star in this scene was "Numa,” a famous screen lion who had already appeared in several other films, including The Extra Girl with Mabel Normand and The Missing Link with Charlie's half-brother Syd Chaplin.

Numa, named after a lion in the Tarzan books, was a resident of Gay's Lion Farm in El Monte, CA. The farm was operated from 1919 to 1942 by former circus performers Charles and Muriel Gay. (Another famous resident of the farm was "Slats,” the original MGM logo lion.) Mr. Gay trained his animals not only to do tricks but also to obey commands and express annoyance or rage. Evidently Numa was one of his best trained and most trusted lions.

Numa in a postcard for Gay's Lion Farm.

No human being is totally safe with a lion so Charles Gay made sure that actors understood that his lions were not completely tame. There was always a certain amount of risk involved when working with a wild animal. Even so, actors wore no protection. In fact, during the lion cage sequence, Chaplin wore a leather legging under his pants to protect himself from a dog who bites at his leg, but nothing to protect himself from Numa. Mr. Gay later remembered the big responsibility he felt when protecting the "King of Comedy" from his lion:
"There I stood while Numa put his nose in the stomach of the world's greatest comedian. It was a terrific responsibility. Here was a man worth ten million dollars. Suppose Numa had decided to become disagreeable. Not all the Chaplin millions could have saved him."1
Gay also recalled how Chaplin once practiced a dangerous stunt with a young lion on his farm, a stunt that even he himself would never have dared to attempt. In this sequence the lion was supposed to sidle up to Chaplin and paw at his stomach. Chaplin simply lied down and let the lion do it. Gay said that even if he were as wealthy as Chaplin, nothing could have induced him to let that lion paw his stomach. "Chaplin may not be a big man," he said, "but he is either a very brave one... or a foolish one."2

Chaplin, Numa, and trainer Charles Gay. 

During the filming of The Circus, Director Chaplin occasionally had difficulty getting Numa to cooperate. In one scene he wanted the lion to lie down in the cage and pretend to be sleeping. However, Numa did not want to sleep as it was not his nap time. Gay was able to make the animal lie down and stretch out but it refused to stay in that position. "Wait a minute," Chaplin said, "I have an idea... Now all you fellows be still." He then seated himself at an organ that was just off-camera and proceeded to play a weird, low piece of music suggestive of India or the jungle. Numa soon settled down and Chaplin quickly (and quietly) re-entered the cage and managed to finish the scene as planned.3

Chaplin attempts to calm Numa with some organ music.

Then the lion was removed so Chaplin could practice in the cage with himself portraying the lion and Harry Crocker (who played Rex, the tightrope walker, in the film) standing in for Chaplin as
the Tramp. British journalist L'Estrange Fawcett, who was actually present on the set that very day, described the action:
Every movement has to be worked out in angles and inches. The lion's jump and Chaplin's jump must be calculated exactly, for we cannot afford to lose the world's greatest comedian. There is a moment's respite, while calculations are made. Suddenly a shout from the cage, " Look, I'll show you what we want," and Chaplin is lying on the floor of the cage imitating the lion. He hunches his back, grunts, roars, moves restlessly round on all fours, rolls over in the dust, and rubs his body artfully against the bars, growling and baring his teeth. Crocker "plays" him with a boathook and a whip, but the "lion" is in no mood for being prodded, and lashes out at the "trainer," putting him
to flight through the door.
Over the bold legend across the bottom of the cage--"Keep Away, Dangerous"--Chaplin stands in characteristic pose, arms through the bars and folded, weight on one foot, the other leg crossed over and resting on the point of a disreputable boot, his compelling smile spread over his face. "Come on," says the lion; "I've got a new idea. Couldn't we..."
The next pause found Chaplin reciting "To be or not to be, that is the question," in devilish mockery of John Barrymore, and then burlesquing himself in his own part in The Circus. He knows a good deal more Shakespeare than he is given credit for. Now he has some comic bit to do himself. He shakes himself, takes a turn up and down the cage, and says to the camera-man, "Wait a moment till I get funny." Then he returns glowing with smiles. "Now let's really mean it this time--steady; camera," and the handle turns. The scene is shot. "That's going to be good,” says the protagonist. 4
Later on the whole business was repeated, this time with Mr. Chaplin and the lion in the cage. The trainer assures us it is quite safe, but I don't believe Mr. Chaplin enjoyed the experience very much. None of the spectators did. Everyone sighed with relief when he came out safe and sound. After all, one doesn't let a lion breathe on one for fun, and Chaplin declared the lion's breath was hot!5
Numa died of cancer in 1930 at the age of 16. He was stuffed and put on display at Gay’s Lion Farm until it closed in 1942.


1Louella O. Parsons, "Movie Lion Farm Interesting Place Of Many Thrills," Waco News-Tribune, May 1, 1927
2Buffalo Courier-Express, January 2, 1927
3A.L. Wooldridge, "Numa Earns A Fortune," Picture-Play, January 1927
4L'Estrange Fawcett, Film Facts & Forecasts, 1927
5L'Estrange Fawcett, "Chaplin At Work on Comic Scenes Described By British Journalist" New York Times, Sept. 5,

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Speed, dust, location"

Chaplin gave careful thought to the filming of the final scene in The Circus, as indicated by the following contemporary description, by an unidentified reporter, of Chaplin at work, on location in Glendale, CA, on October 10-11, 1927:
Perspiring men rush about the Chaplin studio. Carpenters, painters, electricians, technical minds, laborers. Charlie must not be held up. A caravan of circus wagons are hitched on behind four huge motor trucks. They start for Cahuenga Pass. A long and hard pull to Glendale. The location is flooded with light. It comes from all directions. The dynamo wagon hums. So the men work through the night.
Daylight breaks. The morning is cold. Cracklings echo from a dozen fires. It is an unusual California crispness. Cars begin to arrive. The roar of exhausts signals their coming. There is an extra loud rumbling. The big blue limousine comes to a stop. The Circus must be finished. Everyone is on time. Now the sun is holding things up. Why doesn’t it hurry and come up over the mountains? It is long shadows the Tramp wants.
Six o’clock and half the morning is wasted. The edge of the circus ring is too dark. It doesn’t look natural. The Tramp refuses to work artificially. Men start to perspire again. Thirty minutes later the soft voice speaks. “Fine! That’s Fine! Let’s shoot!”
Cameras grind. Circus wagons move across the vast stretch of open space. There is a beautiful haze in the background. The horses and the wagon wheels cause clouds of dust. The picture is gorgeous. No artist would be believed should he paint it. Twenty times the scene is taken.
The cameras move in close to the ring. Carefully the operators measure the distance. From the lens to the Tramp. He is alone in the center of the ring.
He rehearses. Then action for camera. Eighty feet. The business is done again. And again! And again! Fifty persons are looking on. All members of the company. There are few eyes that are not moist. Most of them know the story. They knew the meaning of this final “shot."
“How was that?” came inquiring from the Tramp. Fifty heads nodded in affirmation. “Then we’ll take it again; just once more” spoke the man in the baggy pants and derby hat and misfit coat and dreadnought shoes. The sun was getting high. The long shadows became shorter and shorter. “Call it a day,” said the Tramp, “we’ll be here again tomorrow at four.”
Chaplin is then described watching the rushes at three o’clock the following morning:
The little fellow in the big black leather chair was no longer the Tramp. But he was watching him on the screen. Charlie Chaplin was passing judgment. “He should do that much better.” “He doesn’t ring true.” “He has his derby down too far over his eyes.” “They have burned his face up with those reflectors.” A severe critic, this Chaplin. The Tramp doesn’t please him. The stuff must be retaken. A leap from the leather chair. Speed, dust, location.”
(Unknown source, reprinted in Chaplin: His Life & Art by David Robinson)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Footage from the Hollywood premiere of THE CIRCUS at Grauman's Chinese Theater, January 27, 1928

Charlie appears around the :50 mark with his guests Ambassador Moore & Will Hays. Harry Crocker and Charlie's press agent, Carlyle Robinson (in glasses), can be seen, very briefly, with Charlie & his guests when they arrive.

Apparently the crowds lining the sidewalk to see Charlie were so enormous that members of the National Guard had to be brought in to help bring it under control. When Charlie arrived, he stepped from his car, locked arms with Sid Grauman, and paraded up and down the street for two blocks with one of the big spotlights, which you can see in the background, following them. Before the showing of the picture, Fred Niblo introduced members of the cast. The LA Times reported that Chaplin received a "notable ovation." Grauman's prologue, "Ballyhoo," included performances by real circus performers including Pepito the clown and Poodles Hanneford (see more footage of the premiere plus some of the "Ballyhoo" performances here)

Program for the Grauman's premiere:

Note the ad for Gay's Lion Farm. Their most famous lion, Numa, appeared in the film.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I was honored to be asked to be guest blogger this week on Flicker Alley's "The Archives" blog.
Here's my contribution:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

"Merna Approves Charlie"

In honor of Merna Kennedy, who was born on this day in 1908.

Excerpt from "Merna Approves Charlie" by Katherine Lipke, Los Angeles Times, May 16th, 1926:
Merna Kennedy--17--with radiant red hair and green eyes. Lita Grey Chaplin's chum is now Charlie Chaplin's leading lady in "The Circus." 
A girl, boyish and nonchalant--yet constantly flushing with an undercurrent of feminine feeling. She would probably just as soon call Charlie Chaplin "You egg" during a scene as not. Yet she is breathless in her admiration for his direction and technique. 
When Charlie Chaplin chose Merna Kennedy from her place as comedienne in "All For You,"1 everyone was surprised. Everyone but Merna! To the rest she was just a little girl with a charming smile, vivid hair and dancing feet. 
But Merna to herself is a girl who has been handed many things by life and who is growing to expect many things. This opportunity with Chaplin is splendid but a girl to whom no one ever said "No," who has never met disappointment, how can she judge how great an opportunity it is....
But Merna, with her gay bubbles of enthusiasm, with her eyes untouched by any problem, just stammers prettily that Charlie is such fun--that it is great to work with him--she has never been so happy--she wants to be in pictures always--and then repeats that Charlie is such fun.
She is full of stories about him. How he is constantly impersonating some one or other, many times herself. How at the end of some such impromptu entertainment she gets up and mimics Charlie while directing, revealing all the funny mannerisms of which he is unconscious. And Charlie at the end laughs and protests that he can't look as bad as that. 
She explains how he grew brutal the other day on the set and told her many unpleasant things about herself. She hesitated between anger and tears, and when tears won out he rushed her to the camera and she discovered that this lachrymose display was what he had been working for.2
She tells of Charlie Chaplin--the playboy, who takes Lita, Merna and Harry Crocker (also in "The Circus") to the beach to plan out the picture and then they all go swimming instead and come back tired and laughing, with the picture still in the background. 
These are not things about Charlie Chaplin which have impressed his new leading lady. His laughter and his companionability. She talks constantly of Lita and Charlie as if the comedian, like Lita and herself, were 17 in years and inclination. 
When Charlie planned a test for her for “The Circus" she wasn't excited or  self-conscious.
It was something to get over with before signing the contract. It did not occur to her that she might not be the right screen type. 
Charlie grew saucily impertinent with her while the camera was grinding out the test. She snapped back at him with flippant good humor without self-consciousness. Something to be done and she was doing it. Not a crisis to be feared! Life has never introduced Merna Kennedy to a crisis. 

1All For You was a musical comedy in which Merna had a leading dance role. At the suggestion of his wife, and Merna's close friend, Lita Grey, Chaplin attended a performance at Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. (Screenland, July 1926). He was impressed with her but nothing was said to Merna until some time after that when the musical's run in Los Angeles was complete & she was offered a contract to go on tour with the show. Her mother asked Chaplin if he thought she should do it. He said, "no," that if Merna could pass a screen test he would give her an opportunity. Chaplin also changed the spelling of her name from Myrna to Merna. (San Bernadino County Sun, March 3, 1926)

2Chaplin used the same technique on Claire Bloom for the emotional "I'm walking" scene in Limelight (1952).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Rehearsing the tightrope scene in THE CIRCUS

These scenes were filmed high up in the circus tent with Chaplin suspended only a few feet above a wooden platform which is out of camera range. Assistant director Harry Crocker, who also portrays “Rex, King Of The Air" is at bottom left. Like Chaplin, he also learned to walk the tightrope for his role and claimed that in some of the scenes his legs doubled for Charlie’s when he needed a rest.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Monday, January 6, 2014

THE CIRCUS, released January 6th, 1928

Charlie, running from the cops, finds himself in the middle of a circus performance and unknowingly becomes the hit of the show. He falls for Merna, the equestrienne, but she only has eyes for Rex, the tightrope walker.

The fact that this film (originally titled The Clown) was ever completed is a feat in itself. It was fraught with complications and problems from the very beginning--the circus tent was damaged from high winds, a studio fire destroyed sets and props, and the circus wagons used in the final scene were stolen by college students for a bonfire (they were later retrieved). However, the biggest problem was Charlie’s divorce from his then-wife, Lita Grey, which delayed release of the film for nearly a year.

Chaplin ponders the fire-ravaged set of The Circus.

Nevertheless, watching the movie, you would never know there were so many problems behind the scenes.  Charlie considered doing a movie with a circus theme as early as 1920.  Apparently, the idea for the tightrope scene with the monkeys came to him in a dream. Henry Bergman, Chaplin’s longtime co-star and friend, credits himself for teaching Charlie and Harry Crocker how to “walk the rope."  In many of the behind-the-scenes stills of the tightrope scene, Charlie is actually on the rope, suspended a few feet above a board that is out of camera range.

Charlie’s leading lady, Merna Kennedy, was a childhood friend of Chaplin’s wife Lita Grey, who suggested her for the role. To her surprise (& I’m sure to Merna’s as well), Charlie gave her the part. Merna was evidently one of the “five prominent moving picture women” mentioned in Lita’s divorce complaint, that Chaplin gloated about having affairs with during their marriage.

Merna Kennedy

Charlie spent the next 40 years trying to forget The Circus and it only gets a brief mention in his autobiography.  In 1968, Charlie finally decided to go back to the film and re-release it with his own musical score. He even wrote a theme song: “Swing Little Girl”.  Even though a singer had already been engaged to sing the song, Eric James, Chaplin’s musical collaborator,  decided that no one sang it better than 79-year-old Charlie.

At at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Chaplin was presented with a special award for "Versatility and Genius in Writing, Acting, Directing and Producing" The Circus.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Charlie poses with members of the Toho Cinema Company, 1926

L-R: Mori Iwao, CC, & Ushihara Kiyohiko, who apprenticed at the Chaplin Studios from January-July 1926. The tent from the set of The Circus can be seen in the background.

Photo from Charles Chaplin In Japan by Ono Hiroyuki.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Merna Kennedy (September 7, 1908 - December 20, 1944)

I'm sorry this is a day late.

Merna on the set of The Circus.

Merna was the childhood friend of Chaplin’s second wife Lita Grey. It was Lita who suggested her for the role of the equestrienne in The Circus, not only because she was pretty, but because she had the developed legs of a dancer. Merna made several more films after The Circus, but retired in 1934 when she married choreographer/director Busby Berkeley (the marriage only lasted a year). She died of a heart attack in 1944, shortly after her second marriage to Forrest Brayton, she was only 35.

Eating an egg on the lawn of the Chaplin Studios.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Della Steele

Filming The Circus. Merna Kennedy is standing at center with Harry Crocker (tall man with hat),
 Toraichi Kono (behind Crocker) & Henry Bergman behind the camera. 
Seated in front of Bergman is Della Steele.

I've always been curious about Della Steele, Chaplin's continuity secretary from c.1924 to 1936. She can be spotted in numerous behind-the scenes-photos from this period (like the one above)--sitting behind the camera (usually off to the side somewhere) writing her meticulous notes, no matter where they were filming. She was among the crew who accompanied Chaplin to the snowy mountains of Truckee, CA during the filming of The Gold Rush. Lita Grey Chaplin remembered that Steele was one of the first crew members to catch a bad cold.

Steele's notes provide valuable insight into Chaplin's filmmaking process. Sometimes they included little tidbits of info about late-night meals and who visited the set on a particular day:
Midnight supper served on stage. Shooting in Dynamo set. Worked all night from 7:30PM to 4:45AM. Paulette Goddard, King Vidor and Betty Hill [Vidor's girlfriend] visitors on set. (October 15th, 1934)
The production report for the next day is a little more dramatic:
Shooting in Dynamo set. Hard rainstorm stopped work for an hour and a half. Rain came through tarpoleon [sic] overhead and caused some damage to the sets. Hot supper served at 1 A.M. and worked balance of night to 5:10 Wednesday morning. [work began at 6:30PM the previous day]
Production Report, Oct. 16th, 1934. Source: Modern Times: Project Chaplin n. 2 (©Roy Export)

Usually the secretary just filled in the start and end time for the day on the production report. Maybe it's just me, but the fact that Steele reiterated that the crew had to work all night both nights in her notes makes it sound like she wasn't too pleased about it.

Charlie directs a scene for Modern Times: Rollie Totheroh & Ira Morgan are behind the camera. 
Della Steele is behind Chaplin. Assistant director Carter De Haven is seated with his legs crossed on the left.
 Standing at far right is Paulette Goddard. Charlie appears to be in street clothes except for his shoes.

According to a 1936 article by Sara Hamilton,* Steele stood in for the actors during a story conference for Modern Times. The article also reveals how Chaplin could bring an audience to tears even during rehearsals (and even when he wasn't playing the Tramp)**:
About the table gather Charlie, Henry [Bergman] and Della and the situations are then acted out one after the other. Charlie begins by taking his own role of the little tramp, closely watching their reactions to his every move. Henry, who weighs the better part of a ton, [poor Henry!] is then called upon to play Chaplin's role, Della takes Miss Goddard's role of the little street waif and Charlie is the factory foreman. They go into the scene, silently moving about the room.
Swiftly they change parts again. Della is Charlie the tramp. Henry is the policeman and Chaplin becomes the street waif, a look of pathetic wistfulness stealing across his face as the Chaplin features fade into some vague mist and the hungry child of the streets emerges in perfect form. Trying to hide their tears Della and Henry watch the character before them. Not Chaplin. Certainly not Chaplin. But a strange and terrified child.**
Not much is known about Steele's personal life. A lifelong Californian, Della Elizabeth Dosta Steele was born in 1890 and died in 1955. She was married once (as far as I can tell) to a man named John Steele. They were divorced sometime in the 1920s. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. I don't believe she had any children. She was among the few women who worked for Charlie who wasn't an actress. It's a shame she was never interviewed (to my knowledge) about her time working for him. I'm sure she had some great stories to tell.

Chaplin's crew circa Modern Times. Back row: Mark Marlatt (asst. cameraman), 
Girwood Averill (projectionist), William Bogdonoff (construction). 
Front row: Joe Van Meter (production asst.), Henry Bergman (asst. director),
 Rollie Totheroh (cinematographer),  Della Steele, Allan Garcia (casting).
Photo by Max Munn Autrey.

*"Charlie Chaplin and Charles Chaplin," The Straits Times, March 20th, 1936

**Alice Davenport had a similar reaction while watching Charlie film the scene from The New Janitor where the Tramp pleads for his job because he has a large family to care for. Afterwards Davenport told Charlie, "I know it's supposed to be funny, but you just make me weep." Henry Bergman also recalled the crew members getting misty-eyed while watching Charlie film the final scene of City Lights.